There is no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party will use the Games for its own propaganda purposes, shoring up its legitimacy at home and abroad. A major international sporting event should not be used to gift legitimacy, much less ‘glory’, to the CCP.
‘We win! Beijing wins 2022 Winter Olympics bid!” gloated the People’s Daily, a state-controlled newspaper six years ago following the International Olympic Committee (IOC) vote. “The glory belongs to China”, proclaimed the Xinhua News Agency, adding that the people “should always remember July 31 2015, another magnificent moment in Chinese history”. If the Games go ahead, Beijing will be the first city anywhere to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, a huge propaganda coup for China’s Communist Party (CCP).
Despite concerns about the geography and climate, not to mention the toxic air, Beijing had sold itself to the IOC as the safe bet, an expert in infrastructure with a population big enough to fuel a boom in the niche business of winter sports. The final pitch in the bid was delivered by the big man himself, President Xi Jinping, who appeared on television hours before the IOC decision to personally guarantee a “fantastic, extraordinary and excellent Olympics Winter Games”.
Beijing narrowly won the IOC vote 44 to 40 over Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan, another country heavily criticized by hundreds of human rights groups. Neither country deserved to win, they claimed, given their repressive political systems and intolerant approaches to dissent. The International Tibet Network called the announcement a “propaganda gift to China. China wants the world to ignore its deteriorating human rights and be impressed by Chinese can-do pragmatism instead.” Human rights abuses in China have now spiralled to the level of “genocide”, according to the US administration.
But of course, neither morality nor human rights play any part in decision making by organisations such as the IOC. It’s all about money and politics. The Games will be a huge boon to China’s prestige and its relatively undeveloped winter sports market, a tempting venue for sponsors and others seeking ways to tap the Chinese market of 1.4 billion people. Neither the brutal Beijing winters, with thick, suffocating air blanketing much of the area for days, sometimes weeks at a time, nor the lack of snow, which will have to be artificially generated, seemed to have bothered the IOC when making their decision.
Nor were they troubled by their own Olympic Charter, which promotes “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” and the “preservation of human dignity”. Immediately following its IOC victory in 2015, Beijing cracked down on lawyers and activists across China, sharply increasing the state control of media, the Internet, universities and publishers. Since then it has also detained journalists, further harassed and attacked activists and dissidents even outside China’s borders, shut down nongovernmental organisations, demolished Christian churches, Tibetan temples and Muslim mosques, and persecuted to the point of death believers in Falun Gong. But it’s the recent evidence of China’s detention, rape and mass sterilisation of ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh women by state authorities in China’s Xinjiang region which has really hit the world headlines. Leaders are asking the question of how this atrocious and totally unacceptable behaviour by Beijing accords with the principles of the Olympic Charter. It doesn’t, of course. But are countries brave enough to do anything about it—such as boycotting the Games?
A nervous Beijing sensed this possibility and went on the offensive last week, when a Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected accusations of abuses against ethnic minorities in China, warning of an “unspecified Chinese response” to a potential Olympics boycott. “The politicisation of sports will damage the spirit of the Olympic Charter and interests of athletes from all countries” said spokesperson Zhao Lijian. “The international community, including the US Olympic Committee will not accept it.” Perhaps Beijing has forgotten the events of 1980 when, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, China joined the US and many western countries in boycotting the Summer Olympics held in Moscow the following year. Four years later, the Soviet Union returned the favour by leading a boycott of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, although the impact was diluted because of the large number of sporting powerhouses which still participated.
The effect could be very different and far greater should there be an organised boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The simple reason is that Winter Olympics have far fewer nations in the running for medals than Summer Olympics, with the countries dominating the standing for medals heavily concentrated in the developed world. Many of these are liberal democracies, which have also been the most vocal about China’s record on human rights. The result is a massive overlap between the countries that would be expected to perform well in the Beijing Olympics and those that would be most likely to take part in a boycott, should one take place. Take a look at the “All-Time” Winter Olympics medals’ table and you’ll find that nine of the ten top medal winning nations, the exception being Russia, have gone on record expressing serious concern over China’s abuses by signing a letter to the UNHCR in July 2019.
There is little chance that the IOC would revoke China’s right to host the 2022 games, even if heavily pressurised to do so. After all, the most likely reason why it won the right in the first place was that back in 2015 Kazakhstan was the only other bidder. Nevertheless, some western politicians are calling for the Games to be moved from China to “a country that embodies democracy and the spirit of the Olympic charter”, calls that are met with deaf ears at the IOC. The US State Department spokesman said last week that boycott was “something that we certainly wish to discuss”; but this was later clarified by a statement that no high-level discussions about a boycott were planned. Clearly, the issue of a boycott remains sensitive. Foreign governments and multinational companies are wary of courting China’s wrath and some firms already have suffered for speaking out against the mass internment camps and forced labour practices in Xinjiang.
This is exactly the point. Xi Jinping’s China is a bully, ready to use its economic clout to punish governments and companies who dare to criticise its “internal affairs”. Already the Chinese reaction to calls for a boycott have followed the same pattern as other criticism aimed at the CCP—hit back hard via state-run media while deploying censorship among the masses. Searches for “boycotting Winter Olympics” on Chinese social-media website Weibo have been banned and the editor of the state-run mouthpiece newspaper, Global Times said last week “Washington shouldn’t dare threaten China with an Olympic boycott”. “If that happens, it will be a small group of white-supremacist nations pitted against the Olympics, a display of their self-isolation,” he ranted. “Methinks he doth protest too much”, to paraphrase William Shakespeare.
There would almost certainly be boycotts of companies from those countries that signal a willingness to shun the games. If you have any doubt, consider the recent reaction from Beijing following concerns about slave Uyghur labour harvesting cotton, Xinjiang’s major crop. The Swedish clothing retailer, H&M, was lambasted on Chinese social media for its statement disavowing the use of Xinjiang cotton, amid a state-supported backlash. H&M stores were removed from Baidu maps and their products disappeared from Chinese e-commerce platforms. Another clothing brand, Hugo Boss, faced a similar boycott after denouncing the use of forced labour in Xinjiang, only to take to social media to enthusiastically announce its plans to continue to use Xinjiang cotton. A few days later, their corporate headquarters deleted the post, calling it “unauthorised”, then issued a statement acknowledging concerns about forced labour in the Uyghur region. This flip-flopping reflects the complexity of the challenge facing companies trying to balance market access in China with basic respect for human rights. If any sponsors of the Games were to drop out, they would risk a huge backlash in China’s gigantic consumer market, enraging shareholders.
But governments and companies must put morality ahead of commerce. A boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will be a golden opportunity for the world to demonstrate its abhorrence of Chinese genocide practised in Xinjiang and Tibet, its disapproval of China’s breaking of an international treaty and repression in Hong Kong, and China’s illegal activity in the South China Sea.
Beijing leveraged the 2008 Summer Olympics to showcase China as a rightful power on the world stage, able to do whatever it wants, regardless of criticism. It plans to use the upcoming Olympics to cement that perception. There is no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party will use the Games for its own propaganda purposes, shoring up its legitimacy at home and abroad. A major international sporting event should not be used to gift legitimacy, much less “glory”, to the CCP, which is so obviously guilty of crimes against humanity. If the 2022 Winter Olympic Games go ahead it will be a stain on the world’s collective conscience. The event must be boycotted.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.